Apr 2, 2012

Game of Thrones, Ep. 11, "The North Remembers"

Photo by HBO
How do you talk about Game of Thrones? As someone who has read the five published books (of a planned seven) in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, discussing the HBO adaption proves a confounding task. Do you compare the show to the books, pouring over each episode with a magnifying glass, highlighting every subtle change and re-imagining? Do you allude to events from Books 3-5, even though the television series expands each book into a ten episode season, meaning the end of the current season will coincide with the ending of Book 2, A Clash of Kings? How do you talk about Game of Thrones in a way that includes as many people as possible, without limiting yourself from taking advantage of your extensive knowledge of the source material, including future plot twists?

As of now, I don't have a definitive answer. Things I do know: I enjoy watching and discussing Game of Thrones; I don't like to spoil plot developments for people who haven't read the books, particularly if those twists won't occur onscreen for years; I like comparing the show to the source material, especially since the point of view structure of the books (Martin writes in the 3rd person limited with a select cast of characters serving as the focal points of alternating chapters) doesn't always translate flawlessly to the screen. With that said, my Game of Thrones posts will include references to the books, but won't include explicit spoilers. I may say something like "This moment will be important later," but I won't say why, or when exactly that information comes back into play. Everybody clear? Great.

Let's discuss the second season premiere, "The North Remembers":

A Clash of Kings opens with the sequence on Dragonstone, where we meet Stannis, Melisandre, and Davos. While we will meet a host of new characters this season, these three prove unique in that they initially interact only with each other. In the book, their scenes are told from Davos' point of view (the POV characters in Clash are Arya, Sansa, Catelyn, Bran, Jon, Tyrion, Davos, Theon and Daenerys). In Clash, Maester Cressen narrates the prologue, wherein he warns Davos that Stannis must not trust Melisandre, and then dies trying to poison her. It's a chilling sequence meant to convey Stannis' righteousness and Melisandre's power and fanaticism.

Many reviews I've read of "The North Remembers" praise the show's creators for moving this sequence to the middle of the episode, thus not opening the season in a new location with new characters. It also allows other characters to drop Stannis' name, thereby reminding us that he's Robert's brother (and the true heir to the Iron Throne) before we ever meet him. I would have preferred that sequence had been shown at the beginning, before even the opening credits. It's a major bit of world expansion, but starting with those scenes would have conveyed 1) that the world of Westeros is much larger and more complicated than we have come to believe and 2) that Melisandre and Stannis are major characters here for the long haul. Melisandre in particular is such an enigma, and her religious beliefs and fantastic abilities are so unique in these early seasons, that flashing to the credits after she murmurs "The night is dark and full of terrors," while her ruby pendant glows, would only have underscored the point that we still have so much left to learn about these people, their politics, and this world.

I do, however, applaud the writers' decision to keep Arya off-camera until the final scene. Arya gets a lot of face-time in Clash, with the book's first proper chapter from her point of view. Her actions in Clash are a big part of why fans of the books love her so much. Just as many characters name-drop Stannis before he appears in "The North Remembers," so do many characters mention Arya. Where exactly is Arya? The Lannisters don't have her, and after killing Ned, they've gone from having three Starks to one in their possession (as Tyrion helpfully reminds Cersei). Catelyn and Robb can only speculate as to what's happened to her, since the Lannisters have sent no proof of her captivity. Repeatedly, people ask, where is Arya?

As we know from the finale, Arya is traveling north with a band of recruits (not all of them willing) for the Night's Watch. One of these recruits just so happens to be Gendry, a bastard son of the late King Robert. With the Gold Cloaks killing Robert's bastard children en masse back in King's Landing, the youngest Stark princess now finds herself doubly in danger. While we would have known this regardless of when Arya first appeared, saving her until after we've seen the carnage happening in King's Landing reinforces that this series is not above depicting brutal violence towards very young children (if Jamie pushing Bran from the tower window in the pilot wasn't enough), and that Arya, due to both her own identity and her association with Gendry, has become a prime target for this violence herself.

Speaking of violence, let's talk about Cersei. The Cersei of the books is little more than a mustache twirler - she's perhaps the most blatantly villainous character. Part of that is because we don't get to experience the story from her perspective, and part of that is because of how Martin writes her. The Cersei of the show is a different woman. Part of that is because we do get to experience scenes from her point of view, and part of that is because of how Lena Headey plays her. You guys, I love Show Cersei. Yes, she is still cruel, still a horrible parent, and still in an incestuous relationship with her twin brother, however, Headey conveys Cersei's awful behavior with a sympathetic nod to her humanity. This woman is angry. She is angry for not being born a man, for having to stay married to a man who never loved her (and for having to endure both his unwanted sexual advances and his constant, public philandering), and she is angry because even now that she has killed that man, she must now bow to her absolute shit of a son, all while her domineering father and smarter younger brother conspire to limit her power. Wouldn't that piss you off? Cersei is selfish and entitled, but she is also a woman kept just within reach of everything she has every wanted. She has a taste of it now, more than she did last year when Robert was slapping her across the face, but still, it's not enough. Can you blame her then for that little stunt with Littlefinger, that quick bait-and-switch, that flexing of the muscles? This woman has spent her life surrounded by awful men in power. Can you blame her for enjoying a little of her own?

Moving on - let's talk direwolves. Woo! An ongoing struggle for the show will be to represent the breadth of Martin's world without any one special effect looking too cheesy or obviously fake. With the myriad exotic locations, at least five direwolves (one for each of the Stark kids, plus Jon, minus Sansa), and three baby dragons on the loose, that's a lot of computer generated images per episode. By now, the wolf pups from the pilot have grown into larger than life creatures of fantasy, and the potential for them not to work is high. Personally, I think they pulled it off. The scene between Robb and Jamie (two characters I suspect will be getting expanded roles this season, since they spend most of Clash off-camera) would have been all well and good with just the two men verbally sparring, but it got awesome once Grey Wind showed up to bare his (real or not real?) teeth.

Demonstrations of new-found power occur early and often in last night's episode. Tyrion, now Hand of the King, puts his sister in her place; Cersei demonstrates the loyalty and violence at her disposal in order to intimidate Littlefinger; Robb grows further into his role as King of the North, threatening Jamie and withstanding his mother's pleas to trade the Kingslayer for the Stark sisters; and Joffrey, horrible, terrible, no-good, Joffrey reveals the depths of his sadistic tendencies, threatening his mother with death before (most likely) ordering the executions of dozens of innocent children (in the books, the Gold Cloaks kill not only Robert's known bastards, but any child that may appear to be so). The political structure of Westeros has undergone massive change. Characters have gained freedom, others have lost it; some have gained power; others have not gained enough. We return to a harsher, less forgiving world than the one we left - the stakes have been raised and the players' options are few: you win, or you die.

For the night is dark, and full of terrors.


  1. Will their be an episode on Easter Sunday? I certainly hope so. Also, how do you feel about the obvious religious references with Joffrey as King Herrod? Pretty timely for lent, don't you think?

    Your secret admirer

  2. There will be a new episode this Sunday. I also noticed the Joffrey/King Herod parallels. I'm 95% sure that in the books the mass baby killing was Cersei's idea.